Rebuilding powers Texas, Florida hiding behind veil of secrecy
Mack Brown, Will Muschamp want teams to be mysteries when they take the field
Information about Texas' offense and quarterback competition has been scarce
Muschamp has yet to confirm Florida's base defense, seems to enjoy the mystery
AUSTIN, Texas -- Last week at Franklin Barbecue, two University of Texas students stood behind me in line. They had no idea who would start at quarterback for the Longhorns or how the offense might look. During an 80-minute wait for what might be the planet's best brisket, we had plenty of time to break down Texas in all three phases of the game as the Longhorns try to rally from a 5-7 disaster in 2010. But these guys, huge football fans both, couldn't talk about their school's team beyond a few vague platitudes and concerns. Like almost everyone else, they don't know anything about Texas in 2011.
That's exactly how Texas coach Mack Brown wants it. After overhauling his staff, Brown would prefer the Longhorns remain a mystery until they take the field. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico, one of Brown's former coordinators has drawn the veil of secrecy as he tries to bring another fallen power back to elite status. First-year Florida coach Will Muschamp knows the 2010 Gators were worse than their 8-5 record, and he understands transparency would take away a competitive advantage. If Florida's fans don't even know how the Gators will look, then Florida's opponents will have less time to prepare once Muschamp pulls back the curtain on Sept. 3.
Will the secrecy help the Longhorns and Gators bounce back from substandard seasons? Maybe. At this point, each coach wants any edge he can get. No matter the outcome, the cloak-and-dagger approach has left everyone clamoring to be the first to offer hints at how Texas and Florida might attack 2011.
The day I tried Franklin Barbecue was a big one for the Texas media corps. It was the locals' first chance to interview Texas players after almost two weeks of preseason practice. Information had been scarce. A video highlight package of the Longhorns' first scrimmage had been posted a few days earlier on the official Texas football site, and it had been parsed like the Zapruder film by a fanbase desperate for intel. So when poor Fozzy Whitaker, Keenan Robinson, Emmanuel Acho, Blake Gideon and Tray Allen sat down to talk, they got bombarded. The burning question: Which of the four quarterbacks -- Garrett Gilbert, Case McCoy, David Ash or Connor Wood -- had the inside track to be named the starter?
The answers didn't provide many clues.
"I see all four of them in the huddle," offensive tackle Allen said. (Not all at once. New co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin ran some nice trick plays at Boise State, but he isn't that tricky.)
"Pretty much all of them," linebacker Robinson said when asked which signal-caller was playing the best. "The coaches did a good job of rotating them. ... Some guys were able to get first downs. Some guys were able to move the ball." (Which means some guys weren't. Robinson didn't volunteer this information.)
"All four of the quarterbacks are working very hard," tailback Whitaker said. "Just seeing the way that they compete -- just getting in there and giving it their all -- inspires all of us to compete as hard as they are and give it our all." (The quarterbacks also hand-blend smoothies for the rest of the offense after every practice. OK. I made that up.)
"I'm really just as interested as they are," linebacker Acho said when asked how often he gets the QB question from civilians when he leaves the football complex. (Finally, an honest answer. I think.)
Don't despair, Texas fans. Your counterparts in the Sunshine State also live in an information vacuum. Florida's Muschamp has not hidden the identity of his No. 1 quarterback (senior John Brantley), but the Gators have offered differing views on whether Brantley has reclaimed the mojo that made him one of the nation's top recruits in 2007.
"All I can say is the SEC better watch out, man," defensive tackle Jaye Howard told The Palm Beach Post last week. "Brantley is on fire right now. His whole demeanor has changed. He's taken charge of the offense. He's running the show now and you can really tell it. In my eyes, he's a Heisman candidate." (In the same interview, Howard called freshman backup Jeff Driskel "the next Tim Tebow." When you have a gift for hyperbole, own it.)
"He's a work in progress,'' receiver Quinton Dubar told Gatorzone.com when apprised of Howard's praise of Brantley. "He's getting better each and every day. He's making his reads, making great throws. He's more vocal. He's more into it.'' (Quick, scale back the Heisman campaign.)
The folks in the Lone Star State shouldn't get too jealous about the wealth of signal-caller information available from the Gators. At least Texans can watch some old Middle Tennessee State and Mississippi State game video to hazard an educated guess at how first-year coordinator Manny Diaz's schemes might look. Meanwhile, people in Gainesville would have a better chance getting a straight answer from one of the alligators swimming in Lake Alice than from Muschamp, who has yet to even confirm Florida's base defense. In the spring, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn called it a 4-3 with 3-4 principles, which is a little like calling a computer a PC with Mac principles.
A look at the Gators' personnel suggests they could be equally as comfortable in an odd or even front. The 2010 recruiting class in particular seemed targeted at a 3-4 after years of running a 4-3 under various coordinators. An example is former No. 1 recruit Ronald Powell, who plays a defensive end/linebacker hybrid position called Buck. Powell could fill the role Courtney Upshaw plays in Alabama's 3-4, or he could play the same light, fast, hand-on-the-ground role Jackson Jeffcoat played in Muschamp's 4-3 at Texas last year. Sharrif Floyd, an athletic 300-pounder, also could fit into either scheme. In a 3-4, he could play defensive end -- think Marcell Dareus at Alabama for a physical comparison -- or he could line up on the outside eye of a guard in a 4-3.
Unfortunately for those charged with collecting and distributing information about the Gators, Muschamp truly seems to enjoy parrying the questions about exactly what he and coordinators Quinn and Charlie Weis are up to behind the blacked-out screens that ring Florida's practice fields. "That's why we've closed everything," Muschamp said Saturday. "I do think it's an advantage for us this season." Then Muschamp smiled. "What is Charlie doing? Is he doing what he did at Notre Dame? Kansas City? New England? How is using this guy, this guy, this guy, this guy? We put a wild rumor out there about Wildcat," Muschamp said. "Defensively, are we doing Dan Quinn or Will Muschamp? Are we 3-4 or 4-3? I don't know."
Muschamp does know.
But you don't, and neither do his opponents.
And that's the point.
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